What does Shehan Karunatilaka write about? The answer is – everything. The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises arrived in Indian bookstores close on the heels of his Booker Prize win. The stakes were high and suddenly Karunatilaka had two books in quick succession after his debut novel Chinaman that was published in 2010.
Ten years is a long time – long enough for a writer to start fading from the reader’s memory. Karunatilaka’s recent release can be seen as a litmus test for checking if readers remember him – not as the newest Booker Prize winner, but for the wit and verve with which he writes about Sri Lanka and all its ailments. If you have closely followed Karunatilaka’s work, you will know exactly what Neil MacGregor, the chair of 2022 Booker Prize jury, meant when he said that The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida stood out for “hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques.”
Karunatilaka is a funny guy. And it’s hard to be funny when you are writing about your country’s civil wars, its many encounters with death and violence, and the uncertain future of a nation divided. If one is not careful, the humour might quickly morph into something tacky and flippant – both best avoided. Karunatilaka’s humour is neither – he makes you laugh out loud with the absurdity of it all – not in a way that makes you think lightly of Sri Lanka and its tragedy, but be more acutely aware of how its citizens have found a way to give it back in their own unique way.
Experimentations with form
The Birth Lottery is a collection of thirty short stories (though I am not entirely sure if all of them can be classified as such) that in 250 pages show readers what exactly Karunatilaka is capable of. Spoiler alert: a lot. As soon as you turn to page 1 (and at the risk of sounding dramatic) it feels like you have walked into a Karunatilaka buffet and in front of you he has laid out the best of his wares to pick from. His clarity and self-assuredness shines through from the very beginning.
Apart from the usual table of contents, Karunatilaka also tells you how to ‘read’ the collection. He does so by broadly classifying the stories in seven categories – stories with twists, stories where things happen, stories where nothing happens, and so on. As a writer, half his job here is done – you are already excited by this unusual phenomenon and the categories be damned, you want to read them all.
And yet a word of advice – turn the cover only after you have discarded all your existing notions of what a short story should look like. The first story is an autobiographical account of a self driving car that will crash in a matter of seconds. The ending is revealed in the very title yet over the next five pages you share the worries of an automated machine as it nears its explosion. Of course, there are real humans who are in the way of harm here but it’s the machine that draws your sympathy.
Forget a car crash and its victims, and think about how you are siding up to a piece of metal – a remarkable metaphor of a story that pinpoints the human tendency to futilely worry about things that are beyond our control, and often destined for destruction. Or maybe it’s just a story about a car that was designed by a pompous engineer who thinks human intelligence is defeatable. Either way, you now know what the rest of the collection will bring and how Karunatilaka pushes you into this hole where you start joining the dots of the most absurd experiences and somehow try to relate it to the human condition.
It’s difficult to be a Sri Lankan writer without writing about Sri Lanka. When a country has lived so long with unrest and violence, its natural that some of it seeps into an artist’s creative pursuit. Unsurprisingly, the same is true for Karunatilaka as well. If “Assassin’s Paradise” and “The Capital of Djibouti” talk very clearly about the wars and genocides, near-tyrannical governments, the menace of censorship, then there are also stories like “Easy Tiger” (written in the text message format!) that put the war (literally) in the background and show how people are caught up in their personal troubles and life goes on despite everything. “Easy Tiger” was my favourite in the collection and what struck me as most wonderful (apart from the format) was that not only had the characters accepted the war as a part of their lives but got used to it in such a way that they did not mind fabricating stories about it to get away with their own lies. How truly stunning it is to have that objective and to replicate it in a short story. Perhaps this is also an example of Karunatilaka’s “hilarious audacity” that the Booker Prize jury is so completely in awe of.
Now of course, Sri Lanka’s troubles did not start only forty years ago. They started when the island nation was still Ceylon – a colony. It’s not easy to shake off the colonial past especially if you are trying to make sense of your country’s present-day miseries. In “The Colonials”, Karunatilaka draws an elaborate picture of an Englishman, Dutchman, and a Portuguese man exchanging notes on Ceylon – their conquest of local lands, businesses, and women. In the next fifteen pages, the reader travels back in time and sees firsthand the racism and injustice that the locals were subjected to. The setting and dialogues are so vivid that they put you into a trance – until you read the final paragraph and realise things are not what they seem to be.
The title story “The Birth Lottery”, that Karunatilaka says is a story that “everyone hates”, is the star of the show. In the accounts of 42 humans and other living creatures, the story ruminates on the ultimate lottery that all of us unwittingly are a part of – that of birth. An absolutely chance occurrence and completely beyond our control, this one single event, with which our lives start, determine what the rest of our years will look like. Funny, poignant, anger-inducing, the title story deserves the collection being named after it.
Absurd, surprising, delightful
By now the reader has developed an appetite for absurdity and surprise endings, and yet you just never see it coming. Karunatilaka tricks you into thinking that you are caught in something utterly serious and by the time you reach the final pages you are so lost in the complexity of the story that you completely forget what you were expecting – and again you are met with elements of surprise and delight. I think that is Karunatilaka’s greatest achievement – to bring the reader to each story with wide-eyed wonder and a genuine hunger to want to find out what the writer has to offer this time.
The longer stories in the collection are interspersed by stories that are no longer than one or two pages. “Short Eats”, “Bodhi and Sattva”, “Ceylon Teas”, and “Black Jack” are some of my favourites in this category. Completely unpredictable and delightfully written, this is where Karunatilaka is proudly flexing his creative muscles.
There’s much to love in these stories in a collection that is aptly named The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises – these are more than just stories, they are surprises waiting to reveal themselves. It is impossible to peg Karunatilaka to a genre and there’s no way to know what he is thinking. The stories keep you on your toes which is very unusual for these are not stories of crime or mystery, but of regular life. Wholly imaginative, think of the collection as a glimpse into the versatility of the form and how far boundaries of reality and absurdity can be stretched to give birth to writings that are truly, and without exaggeration, unforgettable.
The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises, Shehan Karunatilaka, Hachette.